Channel One is a commercial news and media service viewed by approximately one third of America’s middle and high school students. The service was established in 1989 as part of entrepreneur Christopher Whittle’s Whittle Communications. Since its establishment, Channel One has been sold to other media corporations, such as Primedia. Under Whittle’s management, schools received the service by way of a contractual agreement. The agreement arranged for schools to receive equipment from Whittle, such as televisions, videotape recorders, and satellite dishes. Schools, in return, would commit to airing Channel One’s twelve-minute news and advertising program everyday of the school year to at least 90 percent of the school’s student population. Similar policies have continued since Channel One’s sale to Primedia.
One of the great controversies surrounding Channel One’s airing in public schools has to do with the two minutes of advertising in the program. Students, teachers, parents, scholars, and public officials have expressed concern over the use of advertising in education. The concern has spanned the political spectrum, bringing together such figures as conservative political pundit Phyllis Schafly and consumer advocate Ralph Nader. Most of the criticism centers on the kind of commercialization of public schools Channel One represents. Some distinguish television advertising as different from other forms of advertising permitted on school grounds due to the level of sophistication of the commercials and their delivery.
While schools regularly permit advertising in the school newspaper or on billboards in school stadiums, critics argue that these are not required viewing and are not as persuasive as television commercials. Others focus on the captive audiences required to watch television at all. Since students are required by law to attend school, the state thereby compels those students who attend schools with Channel One to watch news and advertising. The content of the ads have also drawn criticism. With the dramatic rise of obesity as a public health concern, many question the ethics of using public schools as vehicles for encouraging the sale of soft drinks, candy, and other “junk food.”
While the content of the Channel One news programming has received satisfactory ratings from students and teachers, it has been targeted by critics as problematic. The intended purpose of the news segment is to offer a child-friendly news source that keeps students abreast of current developments and speaks to them on their level. The news anchors and correspondents are of similar age to students watching Channel One in schools. The language, tone, and style of the programming are also intended to cater to middle and high school students.
To investigate the effectiveness of this approach, researchers have conducted surveys of student and teacher satisfaction with the news program. The studies have indicated that they are largely satisfied with the ten minutes of news offered by Channel One. Critics, meanwhile, contend the news offered is of little substance. Content analyses of the program suggest that Channel One news items include pop culture trivia about celebrities. Dissatisfied with such content, opponents of the service question the quality of the enterprise and its place in public education.
The economics of the service has also provoked debate between supporters and critics. Supporters contend that the Channel One agreement provides much needed technological resources to public schools. With state support for education at all levels declining, school administrators see in the agreement an opportunity to provide resources for students and teachers that otherwise would not be made available. Critics counter by citing analyses of the use of technology and the expense of airing the program. Historical and contemporary studies have long suggested that technology has not had a significant impact on day-to-day teaching activities. Thus, they see administrators as overvaluing the need for technology. Moreover, the expense of airing the program, according to one study, outweighs the gains made in the technology received. Critics state that the twelve minutes of school time throughout the year, when added together and across all participating schools, amounts to billions of dollars in lost tax supported instructional time.
Despite the controversies and mixed reception, Channel One continues to thrive. It is well received by most students, teachers, and administrators. It is well supported by commercial advertisers, who may pay up to $200,000 for one thirty-second commercial. And much of the attention the service initially received has diminished. Renewed critical attention to Channel One, however, has resurfaced largely in the form of legal challenges over private profiteering from public education as well as concern over “junk food” advertising in public schools.
- Johnston, J., & Brzezinski, E. (1994). Channel One: A three year perspective. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Institute for Social Research.
- Sawicky, M. B., & Molnar, A. (1998). The hidden costs of Channel One: Estimates for the fifty states. Milwaukee: Center for the Analysis of Commercialism in Education, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.
- Richards, J. I., et al. (1998). Children and television: The growing commercialization of schools: Issues and practices. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 557, 148–163.
- Solomon, L. D. (2003). Edison schools and the privatization of K–12 public education: A legal and policy analysis. Fordham Urban Law Journal, 30, 1281–1340.
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